The crowd was pulsating with energy, buzzing from another rip-roaring, face-melting exchange of guitar solos by Marcus King and Billy Strings frontman William Apostol—this time, from their rendition of Johnny Winter’s “I’m Yours and Hers.” The two musical phenoms were sharing the stage at the Rooster Walk Music and Arts Festival in Martinsville, Va., taking part in the world debut of their “King & Strings” collaboration.
The meeting of two of the scene’s hottest pickers had been generating buzz on social media and music websites for months. The results thus far—14 songs into their inaugural set—had vastly exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic fan.
“Y’all still feeling good?!?” King crowed into the microphone, the crowd responding with delirious joy. “I met this man six hours ago, today.”
It was a shocking revelation for many in the audience, considering the quality and cohesion of the King & Strings set, which also featured Billy Strings’ bassist Royal Massat on electric, and legendary drummer Jeff Sipe behind the drum kit. But, perhaps, it shouldn’t have been shocking. After all, both Apostol and King have grown accustomed to handling eyebrow-raising success in the most rapid of fashions.
[Photo: Eric Rayburn]
A Parallel Rise
Though they specialize in different genres, King and Apostol have plenty in common. Both are in their early-to-mid 20s. Both share a lifelong love of music, the desire to make that passion a career, humble upbringings in musical families, well-worn fretboards…
Each has built his career to this point the hard way—touring relentlessly, selling out increasingly large rooms across the country, and making star-turning appearances a selling out clubs across the country, starring at festivals both large and small. Over the last four-to-six years, each has averaged between 180-200 gigs per year, not counting solo shows and sit-ins.
“It’s been awful busy, I can tell you that. I’ve just kind of been… woo yeah, busy, busy, busy,” said Apostol. “I’m on the road, and I’m hardly ever at home, you know, which is a good thing. I like to stay busy, but it’s been sort of a grind, you know what I mean? It’s been a hell of a grind. I’m grateful for it all.”
“A lot of perseverance, a lot of growing,” King said when asked about his take on the past six years. “Ya know, sharing beds and sharing hotel rooms. And now, we’re on our own (tour) bus, which is gratifying and reassuring. I think we’re moving in the right direction, and that as long as we have our head on our shoulders, we’re gonna make it to where we wanna go. My perspective has always been, and always will be, the only thing to stand in my way is me. So as long as I don’t f*ck everything up, we’ll be okay, which is doing what we love to do.”
Apostol, too, is now touring in a tour bus for stretches at a time. It’s perhaps the most noticeable behind-the-scenes change for these “road dogs,” a phrase to which Apostol is partial.
But the existence of a tour bus doesn’t eliminate the daily grind. Not by a long shot.
“Maybe someday we’ll just be able to walk on stage, and our gear will just be magically set up for us, but right now it’s like, ‘You gotta tune your own f*cking guitar, bro. You gotta carry your own amp on stage, you know? You gotta set up the whole sh*t,’” explained Apostol. “It’s really funny at festivals, [when] we’re setting up our gear—and it’s me and the band setting up our pedal boards—people are just hollering at us and shit. It makes you really nervous. Then you play the gig and throw that stuff back in the trailer, go in there, grab a snack and watch a movie and go to sleep (in the bus) and someone is driving you to the gig, and you’re like, ‘Whaat?!’ It’s straight up luxury.”
That’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when the festival gigs were harder to come by, the pay was, at times, paltry, and the mode of transportation was a van loaded down with enough gear and guys to make the concept of leg room a fantasy.
“We always think about the long rides in the middle of Kansas in the van, ya know, hiding all of our stash and all being scared to death and growing together,” said King. “We think about all those moments that seemed like however many years ago. It felt like forever to us, but in the grand scheme of things, six years is not that long of a time.”
And in that short span, King and Apostol have seen an explosion in the popularity of their music, the crowd sizes at their shows, and the invitations that come from other musicians. In fact, they’ve already shared stages with many of their musical heroes, something that’s still hard to believe for both.
“People I’ve been on stage with that I’m like, I can’t believe it, you know: Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, and David Grisman. I could also go on and say Del McCoury, Bryan Sutton. I could say all my heroes in the bluegrass world,” Apostol said. “It’s been an amazing thing, like, you know, f*cking Béla Fleck came and sat in with us! It was so cool, at the Christmas show last year. That’s just huge. Those guys that I just mentioned—absolute heroes. You know, they’re basically like gods to me. It’s crazy to me.”
King’s list, as expected, was less grassy, more rock’n’roll. “Widespread Panic is the first one that comes to mind. I remember, ya know, sneaking into Widespread Panic shows when I was, like, 15,” he recalled. “That was one of only two concerts I snuck into when I was a kid. I pocketed the security guard a few bucks, crawled under a barrier onto the floor in Asheville, North Carolina. So Widespread was always a group that I was into, and being able to hang out with those guys and make music with them is truly a blessing, that’s for sure. Derek Trucks is another person that comes to mind. Same story, I grew up being spoon-fed Allman Brothers Band and Derek Trucks Band as well. That was something my dad was really into when I was really little, and up until now. He’s still a big Derek fan.”
All of that history made for an awe-inspiring experience last summer, when The Marcus King Band and Drive-By Truckers joined Tedeschi Trucks Band on their 2018 Wheels of Soul summer tour.
“You know, Susan Tedeschi is one of my favorite singers of all time, so being able to sing next to her, and play next to Derek, was just thrilling and exciting and an honor, as much as it is terrifying. I was playing next to Jimmy Herring, and it scared the shit out of me, but in the best way possible.“
Understandably, King and Apostol hadn’t sat in with as many musicians from outside their own genres. But that changed, at least for one night, at last year’s Rooster Walk.
FRIENDS AND PEERS
Organizers of Rooster Walk, a nonprofit festival dedicated to fallen friends from childhood, had booked the Marcus King Band, as well as Billy Strings, in previous years. The similarities between the two young musicians stuck out to the organizers, and led to the pursuit of a collaborative set on the New Belgium Pine Grove Stage at Rooster Walk 10.
“The thing was that everyone is always asking me, and Marcus—when I met Marcus—he was like, ‘Man, every night at my show someone comes up to me and says, ‘You haven’t played with Billy Strings!’ And people used to always ask me, ‘Dude, have you ever met Marcus King?’” recalled Apostol. “You know, everybody was saying that to both of us, so the universe was like, you’ve got to jam.”
That jam quest was not without hurdles, the least of which being that neither musician had met the other in person for even so much as a simple handshake prior to Rooster Walk 10. Initially, both bands were booked to play on Saturday at Rooster Walk, which meant the collaboration would be easy to pull off. But when Billy’s schedule changed, and Friday was the only possible option for an RW play, the goal seemed out of reach. The quest appeared dead.
Luckily, RW organizers learned that the Marcus King Band had Friday slated as a travel-only date, going from a Thursday play in the Midwest (via 15-passenger van) to Rooster Walk for two sets on Saturday. When Marcus was approached about flying in solo on Friday to make King & Strings happen, he jumped at the chance.
They met for the first time at a Martinsville hotel, six hours before their 120-minute set was scheduled to start, and just four hours before load in. They had time to run through a handful of songs in a hotel rehearsal room, alongside Sipe and other members of Billy Strings—but that was it.
“I was really thrilled about the fact. I’m just such a big Billy Strings fan, ya know?” King explained. “I was like, ‘This is gonna be fun, no matter what.’ I knew that Billy and his crew were just easy-going folks, just like us, but when we got there and started practicing in that little room at the hotel, we all knew right away. We kind of threw the playbook right off the stage and went by the seat of our pants and had the perfect cats to do it with.”
From that brief interplay, a lasting friendship has quickly formed. “(Rooster Walk) planted the seed. It brought us together for the first time ever, and man, it was wild. Last year, I met the dude; in six hours, we’re standing on stage rocking it, and how’s that for a first time meeting somebody? It’s just like, I don’t know, a really special thing that happened. But yeah, we have become friends, and man, I really like Marcus. He’s a great dude, and a great player. What an inspiring guy.
“We’re almost kind of kindred spirits,” Apostol continued. “It’s weird. We’re both young dudes that play guitar, and our bands are doing okay, and we’re just on the road all the time,” said Apostol. “You know, I think he works harder than anyone I know. His schedule is fucking insane. You know, our (schedule) is pretty full, too, so we can relate in that sense. It’s like, ‘How you doing buddy? You hanging in there?’ (And he’s like) ‘Yeah dude, I’m good and all, and how are you guys doing? It’s really cool, too. He is a peer. We’re around the same age. He may even be a couple years younger than me. He’s just such a cool dude, and I’m really glad we became friends.”
Added King, “Billy’s become a good friend of ours. We both live in the same town. He came over and was the first house guest that I had at our new house. Well, maybe not the first, but the first we christened the house with of the ceremonial ‘smoking of the joint.’”
For many of their fans, Rooster Walk 11’s King & Strings reprisal is worthy of ceremony. The two-hour set will take place from 10 p.m. to midnight on Sunday, May 26, 2019, and serve as the closing act to a festival that will feature performances from Galactic, Sam Bush Band, Shovels & Rope, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Turkuaz, BIG Something, and roughly 30 more talented bands.
This year’s set will once again feature Sipe on drums, as well as members of Billy Strings. In addition, with King’s full band on-site for Sunday, there’s a good chance the stage will be even more crowded than it was a year ago.
“Well this year, we have a little more time for preparation,” joked King. “So we are gonna get together in Nashville and go over ideas and possibilities and see how far we can venture out without falling. I would say with almost certainty that we will be bringing a couple members from my outfit out for the evening.”
For his part, Apostol relishes the opportunity to play electric guitar, enjoying the freedom and opportunities that aren’t necessarily available on his acoustic flat-top.
“Hopefully there will be lots of psychedelic moments, where we leave the song and go on sonic journeys,” he said. “I really love doing that stuff.”
King & Strings aside, the last six years have been proof that, if nothing else, King and Apostol are each on their own sonic journey. On Sunday at Rooster Walk, those trajectories will intersect—once again—for two hours of cross-genre, musical bliss.
Tickets for Rooster Walk 11 are available now. For details, head to the event website.